What Do Your Hand Gestures Say About YOU? - At The Podium
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What Do Your Hand Gestures Say About YOU?

How can our own hands get in the way when we’re speaking? After all, they aren’t some kind of foreign appendage… they’re a part of us.  This question has been discussed a lot this past year with the proliferation of all the public speaking our presidential candidates did.

It’s said that non-verbal communication actually ranks up there when it comes to what an audience walks away with, so as important as our spoken words are, it’s clear that our hands play an important role too. Speakers, especially less experienced speakers, often have a tendency to worry about what their arms and hands are doing during their presentation, and instead of relaxing and just being themselves, they’re more likely to do one of three things:

  • Overdo or over-exaggerate with their hands
  • Tighten up by crossing their arms or wrapping their arms around themselves
  • Hold onto things like paper, index cards, microphones, water bottles, and pens for dear life!

A study was done in 2015 by the Science of People where 760 people were asked to view 10 specifically chosen Ted Talks. During the study, half of the participants were asked to watch the Ted talks with the sound on, and the other half with the sound muted. Both groups were asked to rate the speaker on charisma, intelligence, and credibility. The surprising conclusion is that participants rated the talks the same, whether the sound was on or off!

The Science of People also determined that the most popular Ted talkers used an average of 465 gestures during their 18-minute talk. This is nearly twice as many as the less popular speakers.  The conclusion? It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. Your nonverbal communication—which includes appropriately used hand gestures—delivers a more successful talk.

With this in mind, here are a few suggestions for getting over the nerves of trying to figure out what to do with your hands when you’re speaking. (Hint: It’s not putting them in your pockets!)

Practice, practice, practice your presentation until you’re sick of hearing yourself. But get the most out of your practice by making certain you’re doing it in the same “stance” as when you’re actually speaking. If you’re going to be walking around, practice while you’re walking around. If you’re going to be standing at the podium, practice from a stationary position. Get comfortable, and let your hands do what they would naturally do.

Stand in front of a mirror and practice: Now that you’ve practiced your presentation so many times that you know it in your sleep, watch yourself. Focus in on what you’re doing with your hands. Are your gestures comfortable? Do they make sense? If you don’t like them, work on them until you do, and then practice, practice, practice! When you’re ready to take it to the next level, videotape yourself and then view the tape.

Find a friend: After you’ve practiced and feel comfortable with your gestures, find a friend or colleague you trust to give you honest feedback—both critical and complimentary—and have them watch and listen to your presentation.

Yes, there’s more to be aware of than just the content of your presentation, but that adds to the fun and adventure of public speaking!

Do you have a story to share about how you calmed your own nerves about what to do with your hands while you’re speaking? I’d love to hear it. I’m always on the lookout for something to feature in a future newsletter.

'Til we speak again,
Beth Stoller